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Election Day guaranteed change to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for the first time in 15 years.

The change could happen as late as 2018. Or as soon as November. But in three races Tuesday night, a majority of voters chose against the county supervisors for one of the few times since the current crop of five supervisors took office in the mid-1990s.

Voters passed Proposition B, which limits supervisors to two four-year terms, with nearly 69 percent in favor. And two incumbent supervisors, Republicans Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, will face general election races after both fell just shy of the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in the primary. Only once before had a current supervisor faced a runoff as an incumbent — Horn in 1998.

The supervisors and their supporters called the three outcomes predictable.

Voters tend to support term limits and crowded fields in both supervisorial races cut into the incumbents’ support. Both Horn and Roberts held strong pluralities — Horn earned 47.19 percent and Roberts 48.02 percent with some provisional and absentee ballots outstanding — leaving wide margins for their opponents to overcome in November.

Tuesday’s results said something more for their opponents.

The supervisors’ opponents, Vista City Councilman Steve Gronke against Horn and community health educator Stephen Whitburn against Roberts, performed well despite having little name recognition and financing in an election with more Republican draws on the ballot.

Both races now are shaping up differently.

Roberts’ race should continue to see heavy involvement from the local Democratic Party. Registration in the district, which comprises San Diego’s urban core, is nearly two-to-one in favor of the Democrats. The party sent out mailers in the election’s final weeks endorsing an anyone-but-Roberts approach. Roberts faced a diverse field: Whitburn is active in the gay community, and the others were a black female school board member, a Latino housing advocate and a retired female school teacher.

Jess Durfee, head of the local Democratic Party, said the broad field of candidates helped push the election to November where Democrats are likely to have a higher turnout.

“With the voting universe we’re going to see in November, I think we have a very good shot at retiring Ron Roberts,” Durfee said.

Roberts derided his opponents as “the Rainbow Coalition” and gave no larger meaning to the result of his race than Democrats and labor unions cobbled together enough candidates to split the vote and force him to November.

“You guys have to see trends and be suspicious and look under every rock,” Roberts said. “That’s not going to work here.”

For his part, in an interview Whitburn repeated the mantra that “the majority of the voters made it known they would like to see a fresh voice on the Board of Supervisors.”

He also said the decision to run four Democrats against Roberts, after big-name City Councilwoman Donna Frye opted not to run, was more coordinated than those in the Democratic camp had previously divulged.

“All of us were contacted by folks who wanted to see a real effort made to put a fresh voice on the Board of Supervisors,” Whitburn said.

Jennifer Tierney, a strategist working for Whitburn, said she believed Whitburn needed big money and strong party support to catch up to Roberts. She believed both should be in the offing.

“I think this is such an opportunity for Democrats,” Tierney said. “It’s almost once in a lifetime. How often do you get an opportunity to put a Democrat on the board of county supervisors?”

Horn’s race won’t have the same partisan influence as Roberts’. Horn represents more rural North County neighborhoods where Republicans outnumber Democrats and Gronke, his opponent, is registered decline to state.

Like Roberts, Horn said his failure to win outright Tuesday was because of a large field. Horn also faced four opponents.

“It would have been a miracle if we could have done it, but we were close,” Horn said.

He said he was confident about his chances in November.

Roberts and Horn said they expected unions — who financed the term limits campaign — to play a large role in the November campaigns against them.

Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, said one reason organized labor put term limits on the ballot this cycle was to give voters a face to go with an initiative — and hopefully force supervisors to a general election.  

“Luckily, I think there were some candidates who understood that,” Gonzalez said.

The Labor Council endorsed Gronke against Horn in the primary but didn’t make an endorsement in the Roberts’ race. Gonzalez said it was too soon to know the council’s priorities for November.

Even the supervisors’ supporters acknowledge that Tuesday’s results weren’t typical.

“It’s a change,” said Tom Shepard, the strategist for Roberts and Horn. “No doubt about that. We have not had contested runoff elections in supervisors races in some time. In that sense it is news. But you have to put that in perspective and my perspective is both of these guys outpaced their second-place finishers by two-to-one margins and are within a couple percent of absolute majority.”


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